An American and a Russian president almost made good on a serious proposal to abolish nuclear weapons 25 years ago this month. The leaders were Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev (who was actually the president of the now-defunct Soviet Union) and the occasion was the 1986 Reykjavic Summit.
The story of how Reagan and Gorbachev sat across from each other in Hofdi House, talking themselves into the elimination of all their ballistic missiles in one grand bargain, with US Secretary of State George Shultz cheering them on, was told in heartbreaking detail by Richard Rhodes in his 2008 book Arsenals of Folly. The heartbreak, of course, was the collapse of the proposal over Reagan’s stubborn adherence to the wholly imaginary Strategic Defense Initiative and Gorbachev’s unwillingness to ignore SDI as scientific and technological nonsense. They got a lot of support in these positions from obstructionist advisers who saw the actual elimination of nuclear weapons as not in, shall we say, their best interests.
I recently had a chance to see the nuclear weapons documentary In My Lifetime, by film maker Robert Frye, who showed it to us during the ICAN campaigners conference in Geneva last month. Bob managed to acquire large amounts of fascinating archival footage about the development and testing of the bomb and of people—both famous and not-so-famous—who have worked to get rid of it ever since the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Reykjavic summit features prominently in Bob’s film. Not only does this sequence bring the actors in Rhodes’s historical narrative to life, but it reveals something that could only really be captured in their faces and voices: Reagan (a real-life actor who turned the US presidency into the role of a lifetime) returned to Washington to explain, in a short, cliché-ridden, emotionally detached speech, why his commitment to a delusional missile defense scheme had trumped his desire to rid the world of any need for ballistic missile defenses at all; while an obviously distraught Gorbachev spoke for hours in front of the assembled Soviet leadership about the enormity of the tragedy at Reykjavic and his own personal sense of grief and failure.
At least they tried. There was another face lurking in the shadows at Reykjavic, and there was a collective groaning and hissing among the veteran abolition campaigners in the audience when Richard Perle made a cameo appearance in Bob’s film. Of all the sneaky and insidious nuclear warriors populating Reagan’s inner circle, Perle—whose nickname was the Prince of Darkness—would surely top most people’s lists of the sneakiest and most insidious. It was Perle, more than any other single person, who sabotaged Reykjavic by deliberately mischaracterizing the meaning of permissible “laboratory research” into SDI under Gorbachev’s final proposal, so that Reagan would see the phrase as an unacceptable condition rather than as a solution to a shared political dilemma.
When we fast forward to 2011 and the anniversary of Reykjavic, we find ourselves with another, if less dramatic, opportunity to fulfill the goal envisioned by Gorbachev and Reagan. Another US president has declared himself an abolitionist, and while President Obama has not exactly laid out a clear strategy for getting there (and has taken disturbing steps in the opposite direction with an expansive, expensive, long-term nuclear weapons modernization budget), the phrase “world without nuclear weapons” continues to appear in speeches and policy documents as a declared guiding principle for US security policy. It’s at least something to work with.
Still, things could go in either direction once again. There’s a new surge in demand for global nuclear disarmament among non-nuclear-weapon states—including some with a lot of influence on their nuclear-armed allies. Civil society campaigns for nuclear abolition—ICAN, Global Zero, the Mayors For Peace 2020 Vision Campaign, and thousands of local and national groups working through the Abolition 2000 network—are giving public voice to the idea that completing this unfinished business has never been more urgent, and that the time is right.
The pushback, however, has been predictably relentless. There may be no single villain in 2011 as unlikable as Richard Perle was in the 1980s (although, having said that, John Bolton comes to mind, and Perle himself is still around and causing trouble). But there are vested interests in every nuclear-weapon state, nuclear ideologues in well funded think tanks, and way too many decision makers who see nuclear weapons as nothing more than winning cards in a geopolitical poker game, who all see abolition as a threat to their world view, by which I mean their political and economic power and their sense of entitlement.
So as we remember Reykjavic 25 years later, let’s take inspiration from the almost boyish excitement that gripped two politicians who realized, at least for a few heady moments, that they were also human beings with an opportunity to do something really extraordinary for the rest of the world. But let’s not forget those schoolyard creeps and bullies who would like nothing better than to steal our lunch money…again.